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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Thursday, 25 December 2014

Christmas: taking the long view

Four days ago it was midwinter, solstice day. Here in this Cathedral, the brightest days are not in high summer but in deepest winter when the sun shines almost horizontally into the building and illuminates the vaults from below. For the few days on either side of the shortest day, you are not aware of any change in the sun’s altitude. But as the calendar comes full circle, the light begins to lengthen: ever so slowly at first, but perceptibly. It takes time for it to make a real difference. But we know it is happening. The light and warmth will return. The cycle begins once more.

Since ancient times, Christmas Day has been linked to the natural rhythms of earth and sky and nature. Like the Roman Saturnalia that celebrated the birth of sol invictus, the unconquered sun a few days after the solstice, Christians rejoiced in the birth of the Sun of Righteousness who had risen with healing in his wings. As they did this at the darkest time of the year, they experienced a surge of hope because of the one who would come, this promised dawn that prophets and seers had looked forward to, this long awaited Messiah and Saviour of the World. They longed for a sunrise of wonder. And now, the great Sun is shedding his great light on people who walked in darkness. The world begins to be bathed in it, coaxed into life, turning back towards the source of grace and truth.

The midwinter festivities that our Christmas customs owe so much to were never an end in themselves. Their point was to keep the precious light alive during a season of darkness and death. The rituals looked forward to the return of life in the springtime, the greening of the earth once more, the gift of fertile fields and orchards, the warmth of summer and the fruits of the harvest. In other words, the middle of winter opened up a long view, took a perspective on another new year.

And so must Christmas be about more than just today, wonderful though it is. Throughout Advent we have reached out for that dawn that will herald the end of all that is wrong in the world. We have learned how to take the long view, see how our lives are part of something greater. That something is what God wants to do with this universe, how he wants to end its sorrows and its pain. He has set eternity in our hearts and puts that same longing within all of us. So as Advent yields to Christmas, it is not that we come to the end of a journey. Far from it: we are launched on a voyage of faith and hope, full of confidence in the God whom we see in the baby of Bethlehem. That tiny, cherished life is like the precarious light of the sun at midwinter. How easily it could be snuffed out, as Herod tried to do in his massacre of the innocent children. But we know that light and love will not be extinguished. Because of Christmas, they are here to stay: His name is ‘God with us’, Jesus our Immanuel, says our reading.

This year we recall the Christmas Truce 100 years ago today that was kept by enemy soldiers along the Western Front. That outbreak of peace was extraordinary and unexpected, when men shared food and drink, showed one another photos of their loved ones, kicked balls around and sang carols together. It must have felt like a gift from heaven amid the mud, the slaughter, the smell of fear: perhaps a bit like a tiny solstice when the guns were silenced, and the sun was permitted to rise again into the clear air and shine into dark and murky places, and hardened men gazed into the sky and heard the birds sing and dreamed about a better world.

That was all for a while, an all too brief interval in a terrible war. It was only a truce. But Christmas can feel like that, in a world where there seems to be terror on every side with so little prospect of an end to suffering and pain; or when life feels unbearably hard or our personal demons haunt us. We can treat Christmas like a short-lived truce, when we are permitted not to peer over the horizon for fear of what we might see that could take away our merriment. But Christmas is not a truce, not if we take the long view. If we truly take in what we are celebrating today, God here among us in the infant Jesus, it changes our entire perspective on life. It is God’s sunrise on an old and weary earth, his promise to banish the shadows of our existence. If we can only see it, the Sun is rising upon us. In Jesus’ birth, the whole of time enters a new era. Our little lives take on an eternal significance because we know now that God cares for each of us. The solstice of dark and despair has passed. The Light of the World has come, the light that shines in the darkness. The darkness can never overcome the Great Light that enlightens every human being who has ever been and will ever live.  

The watchword of the Christmas story is, ‘Do not be afraid’. This is how the angel spoke to the shepherds while it was still night. All is dark, though I imagine the morning star shining brightly in the night-sky. Yet the angels sing, and the shepherds hear; they shed their fear and run to the manger to see this thing that has come to pass. And, says St Luke, when they have taken in the sight that awaits them, Mary and Joseph and the Baby lying in a manger, when they have seen this light shining out of a little tiny Child, and bowed low and worshipped him, they return ‘with great joy’ for all the things that they have heard and seen. In St Matthew, the angel comes to Joseph in a dream, while he slept, so we assume that this appearance too was by night. The message is the same: ‘do not be afraid’ for Mary’s child will be the salvation of the world. To be touched by an angel is to be touched by heaven itself. It puts life in a wholly new perspective. It gives back our long view because at once, life becomes worth living again. There is hope and expectation and joy. We come, we see, we are transfigured.

This can be true for all of us here today. We are here to celebrate Christmas once more and adore the new-born King. Some of us have been doing this all our lives. For some of us perhaps it is a first time. But might we all hear it as if for the first time, rekindle the wonder we saw in the faces of the children who thronged here ten days ago for the Blessing of the Crib? Could a bolt be shot back within us, a door opened, a light break in upon our darkness and our need? Could our wintry hearts be reawakened as the solstice passes and the sun begins to rise within us? Could Christmas change our lives for ever? Could it touch the life of our broken world?

I am appealing to all of us: take the long view of Christmas. See it as the start of something wonderful when angels tell us not to be afraid because of the day that is dawning. And if we find that life is never the same again, it redoubles our efforts to live differently, less selfishly, more truthfully, more kindly, because we are inspired by the spirit of Christmas. We need to believe that changed lives can change history, point to that better world the soldiers glimpsed during that Christmas truce. When the season turns, the solstice is past and the Sun rises upon us, we learn to see things by the new light of lengthening days. Our Advent longings were not misplaced. He has come as he promised, God with us. We meet him, we greet him, we bless him, we understand, we hope, we celebrate, we love. Fear is gone. We know that our joy at his birth will last for ever. 

Durham Cathedral, Christmas Day 2014 (Matthew 1.18-25)

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